Like many Labour Council Leaders and Leaders of Labour Groups I was heartened and encouraged to receive a letter dated 17th December from Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Jon Trickett, setting out the leadership’s position in relation to the setting of legal council budgets. I say heartened and encouraged because there had been some noises off in lead up to this about the setting of “no cuts” budgets and the usual ultra-leftist nonsense about Labour Councils doing the Tories dirty work etc. Let me quote directly from the letter.
“The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP, said in September, “…the situations councils are now in is if they don’t set a budget, a council officer will do it for them. There is no choice for them anymore.” As you know, councils must set a balanced budget under the Local Government Act 1992. If this does not happen, i.e. if a council fails to set a legal budget, then the council’s Section 151 Officer is required to issue the council with a notice under Section 114 of the 1988 Local Government Act. Councillors are then required to take all the necessary actions in order to bring the budget back into balance.
Failing to do so can lead to complaints against councillors under the Code of Conduct, judicial review of the council and, most significantly, government intervention by the Secretary of State. It would mean either council officers or, worse still, Tory ministers deciding council spending priorities. Their priorities would certainly not meet the needs of the communities which elected us.”
So far so good and fairly unequivocal you would think. Not so. According to a statement from the Labour Representation Committee, to see this as an endorsement of responsible and legal budget setting is to engage in “hasty and highly selective reading” of the leadership’s letter. The letter does go on to talk quite rightly about the government’s austerity cuts being a political choice rather than an economic necessity and of the importance in the run up to local government and mayoral elections in 2016 of pinning the blame for cuts in local government services squarely on the Conservative Government which is causing them. No problem there, although I do wonder what they think we have been doing since 2010!
None of us came into local government to cut peoples services and I for one and am more than happy to campaign with the party nationally and locally to expose the devastating impact of this government’s cuts to local council spending. Another suggestion recently mooted has been for councils to dip into their reserves to fill spending gaps left by central government cuts. Again what do people think councils have been doing up until now? Interestingly the late unlamented former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles used to use this argument when challenged by the LGA and others about cuts to council funding. “What are you moaning about”? Eric would say. “You’re sitting on mountains of reserves”. Strange bed fellows indeed. I have to say that what reserves my council holds in no way resembles a mountain, more like a small grassy mound.
The most recent local government settlement is, if possible, even more challenging for Labour Councils in the years ahead. We have done some great things in town halls across the land in recent years and shown what Labour can achieve when in power. However, we need to remain united within our Labour Groups. Discipline and cohesion is important. Without that we will be easily picked off. Siren voices urging “no cuts” illegal budgets will not help us in holding this rotten Tory Government to account. We’ve been down that road before and it is a dead end.